‘Chappaquiddick’ Revisits a Tragedy No Kennedy Can Escape

Chappaquiddick movie poster

“They eat their wounded upstairs.”

Lieutenant Al Giardello tells Detective Frank Pembleton this on an episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” to describe the politicians who have invited Pembleton to help them out on a delicate matter involving a congressman. So eager he is to impress his bosses, Pembleton suggests letting a police report get buried, covered up, and the Deputy Commissioner orders him to do so. But when this matter is made public to where a scandal erupts in the news, the Commissioner denies his own involvement and lets Pembleton take the fall. Pembleton has become one of the wounded as the higher ups in the department hang him out to dry, and we see what politicians will do to keep their political currency protected at all costs.

I kept thinking about this exchange while watching “Chappaquiddick” which takes us back to the year 1969 when Senator Ted Kennedy was involved in a car accident. While attempting to cross the Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, his car went off the side and plunged into the water. Ted was able to free himself, but his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, remained trapped inside and eventually drowned. Ted failed to report this incident to the police until 10 hours after it happened, and we watch as his closest advisers look for ways to spin the story to their advantage as the scandal threatens to derail Ted’s political career and forever tarnish the image of the Kennedy family.

The car accident is presented in bits and pieces throughout because, as anyone who has been in an accident can tell you, no one remembers everything in a linear fashion. After the initial accident, the story jumps ahead to a soggy Ted Kennedy walking slowly back to the house where he, his advisers and secretaries were having a party. When his close friend Joe Gargan sees him shivering in the back of a car, Ted simply says, “I’m not going to be President.” From there, everyone goes into damage control mode as they try to get a hold of the narrative and manipulate it to where Ted will come out of this accident in one piece. But there is still a dead body in the center of this tragedy, and some in the inner circle are not about to let this fact go away.

It’s fascinating to watch the political spin machine at work in “Chappaquiddick” as this kind of press manipulation is a regular thing these days, but even back in 1969 the truth was not so easy to bend as the truth still found a way to the surface. Still, we feel the pressure of the press as Ted and company scramble to come up with an answer which will exonerate the Senator in the eyes of his constituents and America at large. There are scenes where his advisers come up with ridiculous scenarios to explain Ted’s actions, like getting a physician to explain how Ted suffered a concussion in the accident even though he isn’t given a chance to examine the senator. Then there’s the story about how Ted was put on sedatives because of his concussion, but a reporter points out how taking sedatives in this condition could easily kill him. And let’s not forget the neck brace fiasco which Ted didn’t even bother rehearsing. There was no Facebook or social media back then, but there was still enough attention paid to where Ted could not walk away from this tragedy unscathed.

At the center of “Chappaquiddick” is Jason Clarke who portrays Ted Kennedy. Many actors could have easily fallen victim to simply playing the late senator as the icon we all see him as and saddle themselves with an accent which makes them sound like Mayor Quimby from “The Simpsons.” Clarke never falls into any of those traps and instead makes Ted as human as anybody else, full of flaws and passions which at times get the best of him. It’s a wonderfully complex performance as Clarke shows how Ted worked to control how the news of this tragedy coming out while wrestling with a conscience that will not let him escape the guilt he feels. Just watch Clarke as he phones Mary’s parents to inform them of her death. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and not an easy one to pull off.

Special mention goes to Kate Mara who plays Mary Jo Kopechne. It’s a small role, but Mara makes the most of her time onscreen as she forces us to see Mary as much more than a mere historical footnote. We learn Mary was a devoted supporter of Bobby Kennedy and his values, and she desperately wants to believe Ted can deliver on the same promises Bobby made before he was killed. This makes her final onscreen moments where Kate is desperately keeping her head above water as she hopes for a miracle which never comes. Whether or not you knew of Mary Jo’s existence before this movie, Mara’s performance ensures we never forget her once we leave the theater.

Indeed, the entire cast of “Chappaquiddick” is well chosen as each actor inhabits their role with a lot of passion and energy which makes this more than the average biopic. Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan get to break free of their comic roles here as Joe Gargan and Paul Markham, two of Ted Kennedy’s closest advisers who are desperate for him to get his story straight before he does even more damage to his image. Helms is especially worth singling out here as he makes Joe the conscience Ted desperately needs to pay attention to, and whether or not Ted does is not worth revealing here as you have to look into Helms’ eyes to see what the answer is.

One truly brilliant performance worth singling out here comes from Bruce Dern who gives an almost wordless performance as Joe Kennedy, the patriarch of this famous family. When we meet Joe, he has long since become hobbled by a stroke and aphasia, and this makes Dern’s work all the more challenging as he has to express things to the audience without the use of words. The final scene he has with Clarke is brutal as the frustrations and disappointments these two have with one another come to their breaking point.

It’s great to see Clancy Brown here as the no-nonsense Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara as he cuts through the bull to make sure the narrative runs as smoothly as possible for the incumbent senator. From the first moment he appears onscreen, the “Highlander” actor shows the audience he means business as McNamara moves quickly into damage control mode and freaks when the most thoughtless of mistakes are made by subordinates.

Olivia Thirlby also shows up here as Rachel Schiff, another loyal Kennedy secretary and close friend to Mary. It’s fascinating to watch Thirlby here as she takes Rachel from being totally devastated upon learning of her friend’s death to racing into damage control mode. Whatever you may think of her actions, Thirlby shows how devoted she is to the Kennedy family as she feels the country cannot suffer over one person’s mistake.

Also worth mentioning is Vince Tycer, a noted theater director in Connecticut, who plays David Burke, an individual known as a aide to powerful men. It’s fascinating to watch Tycer in “Chappaquiddick” as he hovers in the shadows next to Ted Kennedy and looks ready to defend the senator’s honor in any possible way. This is another character who could have been played in too broad a fashion, but Tycer plays David in a thoughtfully subtle way as this is a character who is more than willing to set aside his own thoughts and desires for something he considers to be the greater good.

“Chappaquiddick” was directed by John Curran who previously helmed such movies as “The Painted Veil” and “Tracks,” and he wrote the screenplay for Michael Winterbottom’s highly controversial “The Killer Inside Me.” Curran gives this film an underplayed feel as he wants us to see these characters not as historical figures forever defined by their public images, but as people like you and me. The more we see ourselves in these characters’ shoes, the more we get sucked into the story to where this becomes more than your average biopic or just another movie which is (sigh) “based on a true story.”

The only real problem I had with this movie was it felt a little too underdone to where an infusion of energy could have come in handy. I kind of wish Curran had livened up the proceedings at times, especially when it came to watching the walls close in on Ted. There is passion on display here, but that passion could have been stronger in retrospect.

Regardless, “Chappaquiddick” proves to be a fascinating look into the broad scope of political power and at the life of a man born into privilege who uses it to escape a harsh punishment with his career mostly intact. Ted did go on to become the “Lion of the Senate” as he fought long and hard for social justice and universal health care, but I left this movie wondering if his actions were taken to atone for his part in Mary Jo’s death. In the eyes of many Americans, he earned his forgiveness, but a closeup of Clarke’s eyes in this movie’s final moments suggests Ted never fully forgave himself. Did he truly earn a redemption in the years following this accident? We may never truly know, and this makes “Chappaquiddick” especially haunting.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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